World News

04.17.14

The Seedy Side of Sainthood: Was John Paul II Canonized Too Fast?

As the faithful descend on Rome for the double canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII, critics say the two popes were pushed through to sainthood without a thorough vetting.

VATICAN CITY—On a narrow cobblestone street about a block away from St. Peter’s Square, religious pilgrims and tourists crowd around a wicker basket with a sign advertising “Two For One.” The basket is full of metal keychains with the likenesses of John Paul II and John XXIII, the two dead popes who will be elevated to sainthood in a massive “popapalooza” ceremony on April 27. You won’t find the current Pope Francis in the bin, though. His likeness adorns the more expensive posters, calendars and tea towels inside the store. And you won’t find retired Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who lives in a convent on the Vatican grounds, unless you ask the store clerk. “Not a big seller,” she says, pulling out a shoebox with a few Benedict tokens.

Like many of the 4 million religious pilgrims and curious tourists expected to descend on the eternal city for the canonization ceremony, Genevieve Krall, a Belgian legal assistant, is staying for the week between Easter and the double canonization, contributing to a much-appreciated tourism boost. As a staunch Catholic, she prays to saints as part of her daily devotion, but she isn’t sure that either of the two popes are actually saint material quite yet. “I saw Pope John Paul II in Belgium in 1995 and I was here by chance when he died in 2005,” Krall told The Daily Beast as she rummaged through the keychains for a second John Paul II for her aging mother back home. “I decided to come back for his canonization because it felt personal. It’s rare to have shared the same space in time with someone who is now a saint.”

The feeling that it is just a little bit too soon to elevate John Paul II to sainthood has been echoed by many Catholics who prefer a longer post mortem waiting period to make sure the potential saint’s earthly record holds up. John Paul II will be the fastest tracked saint in the history of Catholic saint-making, beating out Mother Theresa, who previously held the record by just 15 days. When he died in April 2005, cheers erupted calling for “santo subito” or “sainthood immediately,” but few actually thought it would be—or should be—this fast. 

Loved as he was for his charisma and his role in the fall of communism, John Paul II actually has a quite appalling report card on his handling of the Church’s child sex abuse scandal, which mushroomed during his 27-year pontificate. Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, says it is hurtful for victims that he is being made a saint so soon. “Little can be done by Catholic officials to erase the pain of hundreds of thousands of deeply wounded men, women and children who have been sexually assaulted by clergy,” she says. “But the church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the countless, widely-documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place.”

In many ways, the decision to rush John Paul II’s sainthood is not exactly a Francis decision. “In a sense, Francis inherited the sainthood cause of John Paul II. For most Catholics, his canonization was a foregone conclusion and is not going to be seen as a Pope Francis initiative,” says John Thavis, Vatican specialist and author of The Vatican Diaries. “In fact, had Francis intervened to delay or stop the canonization because of criticism of John Paul’s record on sex abuse, it would have been seen by many as unforgivable meddling, and an undoing of John Paul’s legacy.”

Pope Francis decided to waive John XXIII’s second miracle so he could canonize both popes together.

There is also the troublesome question of miracles. In accordance with saint-making protocol set forth by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, each potential saint needs to have two certified miracles credited to his or her name by someone who prayed specifically to them. That makes John XXIII, known as “the good pope,” a questionable candidate since he only has one miracle under his belt—the healing of an Italian nun with severe internal hemorrhaging who prayed to him when he was beatified in 2000.

Miracles, by their nature, are not that easy to prove. The Vatican depends on more than 30 clerics who shoulder the theological burden of validating miracles, including ascertaining proof that the cured patient spent sufficient time in honest prayer to the would-be saint. To back them up, more than 80 non-clerical consultants, including medical doctors, technicians, psychiatrists, and even handwriting analysts, dissect every aspect of the miracle in search of a secular explanation.

Potential saints must first go through the process of beatification during which they become “blessed” and therefore easier to pray to for the second miracle that clinches the deal. John XXIII was beatified in 2000 and John Paul II was beatified in May 2011 in a lavish ceremony that cost the Vatican more than $1.65 million.

John Paul II does have the two miracles under his belt. The first involves a French nun with Parkinson’s disease who was miraculously cured of her symptoms after praying to John Paul II upon his death. The second was a Costa Rican woman whose brain aneurysm miraculously disappeared after praying to the dead pontiff upon his beatification.

Pope Francis decided to waive John XXIII’s second miracle so he could canonize both popes together, which has caused speculation about just what Francis hopes to get out of the deal. “Pope Francis made a calculated political decision on canonizing the two popes, trying to bring some unity to a fractured church,” says Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome, who has written extensively on the Catholic Church.

Berry credits John XXIII for changing the church in convening Vatican II, an agenda he says Francis has resurrected in pushing for greater pluralism, against what he calls the monarchical stance of John Paul and Benedict. “They stressed rules and obedience, Francis is emphatic about mercy,” Berry says. “John Paul’s geopolitical achievement, as a catalyst in the fall of the Soviet Empire, makes him one of the great figures of modern Western history.”

But like others, Berry believes John Paul II’s legacy with the Church’s sex abuse scandal should have barred him from sainthood, especially with his handling of the case of the Legionnaires of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who sexually abused seminarians, fathered several children and even abused his own son. John Paul II instead rallied around Maciel, who was one of the Church’s greatest fundraisers, often taking him on apostolic visits as a Vatican rep, and turning a deaf ear to the accusations against him even as they became insurmountable. “What he did to the Church internally is a sadder story, most strikingly in his failure on the abuse crisis,” Berry says. “Sheltering Maciel was an act of blind hubris. By elevating [John Paul II] to the same status as ‘good Pope John,’ Francis will draw groans from both sides of the Catholic divide.”

In many ways, John Paul II laid the groundwork for his fast track to sainthood back in 1983 when he dismissed the office of the advocatus diabolus, or devil’s advocate. Until then, all causes for saints had to be scrutinized by a canon lawyer, called the Promoter Fidei, who studied each saint’s worthiness. John Paul, who annointed more saints than all of his predecessors combined with 1,338 beautifications and 482 canonizations, would not likely have made the cut based on his record on the child abuse scandal. But just because Francis is following through with what his predecessors started, it doesn’t mean he isn’t putting his own mark on it. “The Vatican does, however, face a public relations challenge here. On one hand, the Vatican has underlined that canonizing a pope should not be seen as an endorsement of every decision made by that pope,” says Thavis. “In other words, canonization is supposed to be about personal holiness, not papal performance. But that is precisely how many people view it.”

Controversy aside, the buzz in Rome and in the virtual world is palpable leading up to the big day. There is a saint-making app, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed called @2popesaints dedicated to the event. There is even a musical based on John Paul II’s journey to sainthood that will open in Rome next week to help pilgrims bide the time between Easter and popapalooza.

Most of Rome’s midrange and cheap hotel rooms and convent B&B’s have been booked for months. The National Federation of Craftsmen estimates a 10 percent boost in business for small shops selling religious tokens during the 16-day period that begins with Holy Week and encompasses both Easter and the double Canonization. Rome’s two airports and taxi services also expect a bump in business, with more than a dozen charter flights dedicated to pilgrims from all over the world expected for the canonization alone. “Many businesses will make a year’s worth of profit during this period,” says Giovanna Marchese Bellaroto, head of the National Federation of Craftsmen.

The double canonization may not be good for some Catholics, but no one can argue that it is not good for business.